THE main achievement of the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong, which ended on Sunday, was that it did not collapse as previous meetings in Seattle in 1999 and Cancun in 2003 had done. Instead a sufficient number of small and often very technical agreements were reached to keep the big issues of the so–called Doha Development Round alive for a further year. The Doha Round was started four years ago with the aim of reaching trade agreements that would benefit the world's poorest nations. The very able World Trade Organisation's Director General, Pascal Levy, said that the Hong Kong negotiations had advanced completion from 55 per cent to 60 per cent and that he hoped drafting could be finalised by April next year. It is tempting to mock such snail's pace progress but the issues at stake are complex in the extreme and sometimes the whole economic fate of a small country can depend on decisions taken during these talks. However, there is now a need for acceleration because the authority which President Bush obtained from Congress for “fast-track” negotiations will end in June 2007; if the Doha Round has not been completed before then the United States might have to quit its deliberations and that would risk bringing the whole process to a standstill. Agricultural subsidies and tariffs remain the main sticking point. One of the principal disappointments of the Hong Kong meeting was the continued resistance of the United States to reducing subsidies for its cotton farmers at the expense of poor West African producers; at earlier meetings the US had agreed to deal with this issue “ambitiously, expeditiously and specifically” but at Hong Kong these words amounted only to an undertaking to deal with cotton subsidies faster than other farm support measures. The European Union was also on the defensive against accusations that it was being inflexible over agricultural concessions; however the EU did agree in principle to eliminate all agricultural export subsidies, including indirect subsidies through export credits, food aid and state trading enterprises, by 2013. Although most television coverage of the Hong Kong meeting was dominated by the protests and near-riots mounted by non-governmental organisations these activities had much less effect on the progress of the negotiations than similar events had done at Seattle and Cancun.


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